Fifty years ago, the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This law represented a major new commitment by the federal government to “quality and equality” in educating public school children. The official act was to “declare a national goal of full educational opportunity.”

The purpose of ESEA was to provide additional resources for vulnerable (at-risk) students. ESEA offered new grants to districts serving low-income students, federal grants for textbooks and library books, created special education centers, and created scholarships for low-income college students. The law also provided federal grants to state educational agencies to improve the quality of elementary and secondary education.

Nearly two decades after the passage of the law, a report was issued by President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. The publication of “A Nation at Risk: the Imperative for Educational Reform,” in 1983 was a landmark event in modern American educational history.

The report lent credence to a growing belief that American schools were failing students, and that students were underachieving in comparison with students in other industrialized nations. One memorable quote from its opening pages jolted readers to attention: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

The report issued recommendations about academic standards and expectations, time spent in school, teaching, leadership and fiscal reporting. The report touched off a wave of local, state and federal reform efforts.

No Child Left Behind

In 2001, with strong bipartisan support, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in order to reauthorize ESEA, and President George W. Bush signed the law in January 2002.

NCLB put in place important new measures to expose achievement gaps, and started an important national dialogue on how to close them. By promoting accountability for the achievement of all students (not just at-risk children), the law has played an important role in protecting the civil rights of at-risk students.

However, while NCLB has played an important role in requiring transparency, it also has significant flaws. It created incentives for states to lower their standards; emphasized punishing failure over rewarding success; focused on specific test scores, rather than recognizing growth and progress; and prescribed a pass-fail, one-size-fits-all series of interventions for schools that miss their state-established goals.

Teachers, parents, school district leaders, and state and federal elected officials from both parties have recognized that NCLB needs to be fixed. Congress was due to reauthorize the law in 2007, but has yet to do so.

Flexibility Under NCLB

In 2012, after six years without reauthorization, and with strong state and local consensus that many of NCLB’s outdated requirements were preventing progress, the Obama administration began offering flexibility to states from some of the law’s most onerous provisions, in the form of waivers. To receive flexibility, states demonstrated that they had adopted and had plans to implement college and career-ready standards and assessments, that they put in place school accountability systems that focused on the lowest-performing schools and schools with the largest achievement gaps, and that they ensured that districts were implementing teacher and principal evaluation and support systems.

The flexibility required states to continue to be transparent about their achievement gaps, but provided schools and districts greater flexibility in the actions they take to address those gaps. Today, 43 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico have flexibility from NCLB. New Jersey is among the states that have received a waiver.

The administration and the U.S. Department of Education remain committed to reauthorizing ESEA to ensure that all young people are prepared to succeed. This would protect the underserved school districts, and ensure that those schools, principals, and teachers would have the resources they need to succeed.

A New ESEA

In January 2015, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out a vision for a new ESEA. The vision includes an ESEA that expands access to high-quality preschool; ensures that parents and teachers have information about how their children are doing every year; gives teachers and principals the resources and support they need; encourages schools and districts to create innovative new solutions to problems; provides for strong and equitable investment in high-poverty schools and districts; and ensures that action will be taken where students need more support to achieve, including in the lowest-performing schools.

The New Jersey Waiver

New Jersey received a one-year extension for flexibility from certain provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), after implementing education reforms.

This extension will allow the state to continue the work of implementing reforms developed to improve achievement for all students. The extension runs through the end of the 2014-2015 school year.

Currently, the NJDOE has just submitted an application to renew the waiver for the next two years. However, if ESEA reauthorization should become a reality, the waiver would discontinue immediately.

The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) has established a model curriculum aligned to college- and career-ready standards and has implemented the monitoring of priority and focus schools.

When the state receives the expected renewal of the waiver, beginning in 2016, New Jersey has to take additional action.

The state must describe how school districts will be required to implement intervention in Title I schools with subgroups that did not meet annual measurable objectives, or did not meet graduation rate targets. Currently, Title I funds support the regional achievement centers (RACs) throughout the state. These RACs are charged with restructuring specific schools that are categorized as “priority” and “focus” schools. “Priority” schools are the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools based on proficiency, growth, and graduation rates, and any non-Title I school that would otherwise meet the same criteria. Focus schools include at least 10 percent of Title I schools identified by achievement gaps between subgroups and low performance or graduation rates among particular subgroups, and any non-Title I school that would otherwise meet the same criteria.

In the new waiver application, the excess Title I funds are to also target schools that are categorized as “high-risk” schools. These schools are performing slightly better than priority or focus schools, but still have not shown growth or improvement in student achievement measures.

In order to receive an extension, states must demonstrate they have resolved any state-specific issues. States could also request state-specific amendments to the waiver to support improvement efforts. The USDOE is reviewing requests from states for one-year extensions to ESEA flexibility on a rolling basis.

In the meantime, there have been two bills drafted by the U.S. House of Representatives and by the U.S. Senate to reauthorize ESEA. The House bill is called the “Student Success Act” and the Senate Bill is the “Every Child Achieves Act of 2015.”

The provisions of the House bill, the Student Success Act (H.R. 5):

  • Replaces the current national accountability process, based on high-stakes tests with state-led accountability systems, returning responsibility for measuring student and school performance to states and school districts;
  • Ensures parents continue to have the information they need to hold local schools accountable;
  • Eliminates more than 65 ineffective, duplicative, and unnecessary programs and replaces this maze of programs with a Local Academic Flexible Grant, helping schools better support students;
  • Protects state and local autonomy over decisions in the classroom by preventing the Secretary of Education from coercing states into adopting Common Core or any other common standards or assessments, as well as by reining in the secretary’s regulatory authority;
  • Empowers parents with more school choice options by continuing support for magnet schools and expanding charter school opportunities, as well as by allowing Title I funds to follow low-income children to the traditional public or charter school of the parent’s choice; and
  • Strengthens existing efforts to improve student performance among targeted student populations, including English language learners and homeless children.

The prognosis for this bill is uncertain. There has been no vote on the bill because it hasn’t yet garnered enough support from the Republican majority. The best guess at this point is that the bill has a 15 percent chance of being enacted.

The Senate Bill

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, and Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, unveiled a bipartisan bill this year to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that the two have been brokering for more than two months. The compromise measure includes education policies that are attractive to both sides of the aisle. The current version of the bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

The Every Child Achieves Act recognizes that states, working with school districts and educators have the responsibility for creating accountability systems to ensure all students are learning. These systems will be state-designed but must meet minimum federal parameters, including ensuring that all students and subgroups of students are included in the accountability system, disaggregating student achievement data, and establishing challenging academic standards for all students. The federal government is prohibited from determining or approving state standards.

The bill maintains the federally required two tests in reading and math per child per year in grades three through eight and once in high school, as well as science tests given three times between grades three and 12. These measures of student achievement ensure that parents know how their children are performing and help teachers support students who are struggling to meet state standards. A pilot program will allow states additional flexibility to experiment with innovative assessment systems. The bill also maintains annual reporting of disaggregated data of groups of children, which provides valuable information about whether all students are achieving, including low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English learners.

The bill ends the federal test-based accountability system of No Child Left Behind, restoring to states the responsibility for determining how to use federally required tests. States must include these tests in their accountability systems, but will be able to determine the weight of those tests in their systems. States will also be required to include graduation rates, a measure of postsecondary and workforce readiness, and English proficiency for English learners. States will also be permitted to include other measures of student and school performance in their accountability systems.

The proposed legislation maintains important fiscal protections of federal dollars, including maintenance of effort requirements, which help ensure that federal dollars supplement state and local education dollars, with additional flexibility for school districts in meeting those requirements.

The bill includes federal grants to states and school districts to help improve low-performing schools that are identified by the state accountability systems. School districts will be responsible for designing evidence-based interventions for low-performing schools, with technical assistance from the states, and the federal government is prohibited from mandating, prescribing, or defining the specific steps school districts and states must take to improve those schools.

The Every Child Achieves Act provides resources to states and school districts to implement activities to support educators; the bill allows, but does not require, states to develop and implement teacher evaluation systems.

The Act reaffirms the states’ role in determining education standards. The federal government may not mandate or incentivize states to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, including Common Core.

The unanimous vote evidences a strong bipartisan effort and portends positive signs going forward. “This has been a piece of legislation that has been seven years in the making,” noted Sen. Alexander, the chairman of the committee, in his closing remarks. “This time it is different and I would like to thank Senator Murray for her help getting us to this conclusion.”

Alexander also detailed the exhaustive work during the “mark-up” of the bill, or the period when possible changes are debated. According to the chairman, 57 amendments were considered, 29 were adopted, eight were defeated, and 20 were discussed and withdrawn. Of the amendments adopted: five were Republican amendments, while 24 were Democratic amendments.”

The only voucher amendment offered was by Sen. Tim Scott (Republican, South Carolina) which he withdrew in anticipation of resubmitting on the Senate floor.

Many of the approved amendments would have implications for school districts. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s (Democrat, Wisconsin) amendment to provide grants to states to improve the quality and reliability of their assessments was adopted. The amendment was also sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (Democrat, Oregon) and was incorporated in H.R. 5.

Another approved amendment from Senator Michael Bennet (Democrat, Colorado) would require states to assess their data collection systems to reduce burdens on school districts.

The National School Boards Association has been working closely with targeted state associations and lobbying key members of Congress and their staff on both sides of the Capitol, in both political parties as well as the executive branch.

NSBA communicated a number of its priorities to committee members that will allow school boards throughout the country to have the flexibility they need to successfully address the unique needs of their students and communities. These priorities include local governance, maintenance of effort, and stronger federal investments in Title I, as well as the exclusion of Title I portability provisions. NSBA also wrote to the education committee, urging members “to oppose any proposals supporting vouchers or tuition tax credits to non-public schools” throughout the legislative process.

Next Steps

The Senate Committee will turn its attention toward moving ECAA to the Senate floor for an up or down vote, which may be imminent. The House version of legislation to modernize ESEA, the Student Success Act, H.R. 5, has already been voted out of committee and debated on the House floor. However, no votes have been taken on the floor, nor have votes been scheduled on H.R. 5

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